Shiur #47: The Yoke of Mitzvot The Mitzva of Tefillin - Part I

  • Harav Baruch Gigi
I. The yoke of mitzvot between tefillin and mezuza
 
In our previous shiurim, we discussed the significance of the transition from Sefer Mada, the Book of Wisdom, to Sefer Ahava, the Book of Love, and the relationship between the portion of Shema and the portion of Vehaya im Shamoa. With that we prepared the groundwork for a thorough and profound understanding of accepting the yoke of mitzvot.
 
As may be recalled, the system of mitzvot in the portions of Keriat Shema creates a framework composed of the commandments of tefillin and mezuza at one end (in the first portion, the portion of Shema), and the commandment of tzitzit at the other end (in the third portion, the portion of Vayomer). Between them is the yoke of mitzvot (the second portion, the portion of Vehaya im Shamoa). The yoke of mitzvot is situated, therefore, between tefillin and mezuza, on one side, and tzitzit, on the other side.
 
In order to understand what this means, let us examine the foundations of these commandments and the relationship between them.
 
II. Binding and Writing
 
The Torah states:
 
And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets (le-totafot) between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. (Devarim 6:8-9)
 
These two verbs, binding and writing, are found together in the book of Mishlei. A study of the verses there might shed light on the verses in our passage:
 
My son, forget not My teaching; but let your heart keep My commandments. For length of days, and years of life, and peace, will they add to you. Let not kindness and truth forsake you; bind them about your neck, write them upon the table of your heart. (Mishlei 3:1-3)
 
My son, keep My words, and lay up My commandments with you. Keep My commandments and live, and My teaching as the apple of Your eye. Bind them upon Your fingers, write them upon the table of Your heart. (Mishlei 7:1-3)
 
One who wishes to merit life must observe the Torah and mitzvot with meticulous precision. In this way, he will be connected to them with a close and solid bond.
 
The wise Shlomo made metaphoric recommendations: write them upon the table of your heart, so that the words be well-engraved there. He further recommended two bindings: bind them about your neck and upon your fingers. Bind them about your neck as an ornament, because of the importance you will attach to them.[1] Bind them upon your fingers, so that they be in your hands, close to the world of actions performed by your hands and fingers.
 
If we explain our verses in light of the verses in Mishlei, we can see in them as well a command to connect mentally and ideologically with God's words in His Torah and His commandments. Thus, the Torah states:
 
And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. (Shemot 13:9)
 
The Rashbam explains:
 
"For a sign upon your hand" - According to the depth of the plain meaning of the verse, it shall be for you as a memorial as if it were written on your hand, like: "Set me as a seal upon your heart" (Shir Ha-Shirim 8:6). "Between your eyes" – like a gold ornament that is customarily placed on the forehead for beauty. (Rashbam, ad loc.)
 
The Ibn Ezra rejects this understanding:
 
There are those who disagree with our holy fathers, saying that "for a sign" and "for a memorial" are like: "For they shall be a chaplet of grace to your head, and chains about your neck" (Mishlei 1:9). So too: "And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand" (Devarim 6:8) is like: "Bind them continually upon your heart" (Mishlei 6:21). So too: "And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house" is like: "Write them upon the table of your heart" (Mishlei 3:3). What does it mean that they should be for a sign and for a memorial? That it should be fluent in your mouth that God took you out of Egypt with a mighty hand. But this is incorrect, for at the beginning of the book it says: Mishlei Shlomo, "the parables of Shlomo." Everything mentioned there is a parable. But it is not written in the Torah that it is by way of a parable, God forbid, but rather it should be understood in its literal sense. Therefore, we should not remove it from its plain sense. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.)
 
Even though the Ibn Ezra strongly disagrees with the Rashbam's interpretation, he merely says that a verse must be understood in accordance with its plain meaning. But he too would agree that the essence of the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza is to create a spiritual bond. It was on the basis of this idea in the Torah that the verses in Mishlei and the other verses cited there in his commentary were written.
 
Even the Rashbam never meant to deny Chazal's traditional understanding of the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuza. In interpreting the depth of the plain meaning of the verse, he introduces us to the root of these mitzvot, similar to the root developed in the Sefer Ha-Chinukh that a person's heart follows his actions.
 
III. Tefillin as an ornament
 
We can strengthen this argument, by tracing the meaning of the word totafot, translated above as "frontlets." This word is exceedingly obscure, and already the Ibn Ezra struggled with its interpretation:
 
"Le-totafot" – There is no other example of this word in Scripture. The deniers say that it is related to: "And say (ve-hatef) toward the south" (Yechezkel 21:2). But this is impossible, because the root of hatef is n-t-f,[2] and this word is missing a nun and has two tets. (Ibn Ezra, ad loc.)
 
The gemara in Menachot cites the view of R. Akiva:
 
R. Akiva says: There is no need for that interpretation, for tot means two in Katpi and fot means two in Afriki. (Menachot 34b)
 
Based on this, Rashi writes in his commentary to the Torah:
 
"And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes" – These are the tefillin that are placed upon the head. It is in reference to the number of the Scriptural sections contained in them that they are termed totafot, for tot denotes two in Katpi and fot in Afriki denotes two. (Rashi, Devarim 6:8)
 
There is, however, another possible way to understand the term totafot. The mishna in Shabbat states:
 
A woman may not go out… with frontlets (totefet) or with garlands [sanbutin]. (Shabbat 6:1)
 
The gemara says about this:
 
A totefet encompasses her [head] from ear to ear; sarbitin reach to her cheeks. (Shabbat 57b)
 
It seems from here that we are dealing with women's head decorations. Perhaps this is also what the Ramban means when he writes:
 
But our Rabbis refer to what rests on the head as totafot. (Ramban, Shemot 13:16)
 
The idea of tefillin as an ornament is prevalent in the words of Chazal. Thus, we find at the end of tractate Tefillin:
 
Precious are Israel, who are distinguished by all the mitzvot in the Torah.[3] How so? Tefillin on their hands, and tefillin on their heads, a mezuza on their doors, four tzitzit on their garments. David, the king of Israel, said about them: "Seven times a day do I praise You, because of Your righteous ordinances" (Tehillim 119:164). To what may this be likened? To a king who said to his wife: Adorn and decorate yourself before me. She said to him: Why? He said to her: So that you be desirable to me. So said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: My sons, adorn and decorate yourselves before Me with mitzvot. They said to him: Why? He said to them: So that you be desirable to Me. As it is stated: "You are beautiful, O my love, as Tirtza" (Shir Ha-Shirim 6:4) – when you will be desirable (retzuya) to Me with mitzvot. (Tractate Tefillin 1:21)
 
When the Torah commands us to place these "things" for totafot between our eyes, it commands us to adorn ourselves with them as with a jewel that rests on the head, in the sense of: "For they shall be a chaplet of grace to your head and chains about your neck" (Mishlei 1:9).
 
Just as we explained in the first shiurim of this series that the act of the mitzva of reciting Shema is reciting the verses, whereas the fulfillment of the mitzva, which is its essence, involves accepting upon ourselves the yoke of His kingdom, so too must we explain the mitzva of tefillin. The act of the mitzva involves writing the relevant sections and placing them as a sign on one's hand and as a frontlet between one's eyes, whereas the fulfillment of the mitzva involves forging a mental and conscientious bond with the Torah as if it were an ornament that is inextricably connected to the person.
 
IV. The difference between Tefillin and the mitzva of Torah study
 
Regarding the connection between the mitzva of tefillin and the mitzva of Torah study, it is stated in the next passage there in tractate Tefillin:
 
Thus would R. Eliezer say: Great is the commandment of tefillin, for the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel as follows: "You shall meditate therein day and night" (Yehoshua 1:8). Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the universe! Can we meditate therein day and night? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: My sons, set tefillin on your head and on your arms, and I will credit it to you as if you were meditating on the Torah day and night. As it is stated: "And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth" (Shemot 13:9). (Tractate Tefillin 1:20)
 
This is a puzzling midrash, as it directly contradicts what is stated in the verse that it itself cites. R. Eliezer argues in this midrash that God gave Israel the mitzva of tefillin as a substitute for the intensive and constant Torah study required by the verse: "And you shall meditate therein day and night." God, as it were, lightens the great challenge of Torah study that He had imposed upon his nation Israel by giving them the mitzva of tefillin. On the surface, however, the verse cited by the Midrash, argues just the opposite:
 
And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth. (Shemot 13:9).
 
According to this verse, God gave us the mitzva of tefillin to strengthen our Torah study. By virtue of the mitzva of tefillin, the people's connection to the Torah will be strengthened, and thus it will become an important and central part of their consciousness. In this way, "the law of the Lord will be in your mouth."
 
It seems that this midrash should be interpreted as follows: As we have already explained many times, the most basic and fundamental mitzva is that of Torah study. This mitzva is "the fundamental principle upon which everything is based," as the Rambam writes at the beginning of Hilkhot Keriat Shema. The Torah wishes to strengthen a person's connection to Torah by way of a command to adorn his body with the Torah: upon his hand, between his eyes, and at the entrance to his house.
 
Ideally, a person should never interrupt his Torah study, in accordance with the plain meaning of the verse in Yehoshua: "And you shall meditate therein day and night."[4] Because of this, Israel approached God arguing that no human being can fulfill this commandment to perfection: “Master of the universe! Can we meditate therein day and night?”
 
God responded that He was well aware of this limitation of human beings, and He does not come with unreasonable demands to His creatures. God explained to them that the essence of this demand to meditate in the Torah day and night is to develop a deep spiritual connection to the Torah. Even if one cannot actually study all day and all night, if he has a solid connection to the Torah, he can remain constantly connected to it, day and night.
 
This is the deep meaning of the mitzva of tefillin, which expresses man's affinity and deep love for God's Torah, and through which he is credited with having occupied himself with the Torah day and night.
 
In light of this, it is clear that the mitzva of tefillin does not replace the need for thorough and comprehensive Torah study. On the contrary, the mitzva of tefillin reinforces a person's connection to the Torah, and if properly performed God's Torah will be in his mouth.
 
A person's connection to the Torah, which is expressed through his deep understanding of the mitzva of tefillin, enables this connection to remain constantly in his consciousness through the mitzva of tefillin. It enables him, as a human being, to deal with other things that he needs as a person, without severing the umbilical cord of the root of our existence, as it is "our life and the length of our days."
 
V. From what is permitted in your mouth
 
An interesting halakha concerning tefillin is recorded in Tractate Shabbat:
 
Our Rabbis taught: Tefillin can be written upon the skin of clean animals and upon the skin of clean beasts, and upon the skin of their nevelot or terefot, and they are tied round with their hair, and sewn with their tendons. And it is a halakha from Moshe at Sinai that tefillin are tied round with their hair and sewn with their tendons. But we may not write [them] upon the skin of unclean animals or upon the skin of unclean beasts, and the skin of their nevelot and tereifot need not be stated; nor may they be tied round with their hair or sewn with their tendons. And a certain Boethusian asked this question of R. Yehoshua the grits dealer: How do we know that tefillin may not be written upon the skin of an unclean animal? Because it is written: "That the law of your Lord may be in your mouth," [implying] of that which is permitted in your mouth. (Shabbat 108a)
 
In that same tractate, a discussion arises about whether this halakha, that tefillin must be written upon something that is permitted to your mouth, is unique to tefillin or applies to all the commandments:
 
Then when R. Yosef taught: For the sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit, for what practical law [did he say it]? With respect to tefillin. Of tefillin it is explicitly stated: "That the law of the Lord may be in your mouth, [implying] of that which is permitted in your mouth. Rather in respect of their hide. But Abaye said: The skin of tefillin is a halakha of Moshe from Sinai. Rather, it is with respect to tying it with hair and sewing it with its tendons. But that is a halakha of Moshe from Sinai. For it was taught: Rectangular tefillin are a halakha of Moshe from Sinai: they must be tied with their hair and sewn with their tendons. Rather it is in respect of their straps. But R. Yitzchak said: Black straps are a halakha of Moshe from Sinai. Granted that black is traditional, but is clean traditional? (Shabbat 28b)
 
The Ran in Tractate Rosh Hashana raises a question about this law regarding whether or not it applies to a shofar from an unclean animal:
 
Even though we conclude that [all kinds of shofar may be used] except [one made from the horn] of a cow, it may be that this applies only to clean animals, but not unclean animals. For we said in chapter Bameh Madlikin (Shabbat 28a): For sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit. And a shofar is sacred work, as we said earlier: Since its work is to awaken remembrance, it is as if [used] within.
 
However, this is not an incontrovertible proof, for there in chapter Bameh Madlikin it is implied that even the Mishkan itself is not learned from that which was stated that for sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit, for it is stated in that passage… Therefore the matter requires further examination. (Ran, Rosh Hashana, 6a in Rif)
 
The Noda Bi-Yehuda says about this:
 
It may be argued that even though in the Temple and in the Mishkan and in the priestly garments there were things dyed with something unclean, even so, proof cannot be brought from this about tefillin straps and boxes, for the law that for sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit is learned from the verse: "That the law of the Lord may be in your mouth," and this applies specifically to something that is Torah itself, that is, that has a written text like tefillin, a Torah scroll, and a mezuza, and tefillin boxes that have the letter shin, as Rashi explains in Shabbat 28b. And even though the conclusion there is that the baraita of R. Yosef that for sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit, was taught regarding tefillin straps, and straps do not have writing, as the letters dalet and yod of the straps is not considered writing (as is stated by the Tosafot in Menachot 35b, s.v. ela tefillin); and perforce the reason regarding the straps is that it is an accessory of something sacred, as the Tosafot write there. If so, the same should apply to the Mishkan, and the Temple, and the priestly garments, as they too are accessories of something sacred.
 
Nevertheless it may be suggested that the reason regarding the straps is since they are subordinate to the tefillin boxes, and the boxes are like the Torah itself as they contain the four passages and the shin, and therefore they have the same law, so that the straps must be made of something that is permitted in your mouth. But the Temple, and the Mishkan, and the priestly garments, even though they are accessories of something sacred, there is no requirement that they be made from something clean,[5] since they are not the Torah itself. Therefore, they may be dyed with something unclean, which is not the case regarding tefillin boxes and straps, about which we might say that even the dye must be from something clean. (Noda Be-Yehuda, 2nd series, Orach Chayim 3).
 
It would appear that this halakha that for tefillin one may only use something that is permitted in your mouth stems from viewing the tefillin as representing our connection to the Torah, and their being an inseparable part of man, his being, and his existence.
 
The tefillin and the Torah that they represent are, as it were, a person's food. Therefore, they must be made from what is permitted in your mouth. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests a similar idea:
 
"That the law of the Lord may be in your mouth." It is the living word, not the dead letter, to which the teachings of God are entrusted. Similarly: "In your mouth and in your heart to do" (Devarim 30:14), and: "I will put My word in your mouth" (Yeshaya 51:16), and: "My word that I put in your mouth" (Yeshaya 59:21). Not only to teach others, but to learn ourselves are we directed not to the bare script, but to that which has been entrusted to our mouths. So, highly significantly, it says: "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth" (Yehoshua 1:8). By the written word of the Torah you are immediately to call to your mind that which has been given over to your mouth. The Torah wants even a solitary scholar to actually speak the words he reads, and by the living word impress the teaching on himself. Everybody is first of all herald of the Torah to himself, and by words, through his mouth, is he first of all to find way to his real inner self. Hence also the dictum: For sacred work none but the skin of a clean animal was considered fit (Shabbat 28a), so that a Torah scroll, tefillin, and a mezuza may only be written on parchment made from animals that we are permitted to eat. Even the material on which the teachings of God's Torah are written shall say to us, as God said to his prophet (Yechezkel 3:1): "Eat this scroll," i.e., absorb its contents completely, let its contents become part of your very self. (R. S.R. Hirsch, Shemot 13:19)
 

[1] As stated by Yeshayahu (49:18): "You shall surely clothe yourself with them all as with an ornament, and gird yourself with them like a bride."
[2] Rashi brings this explanation in his commentary to Shemot:
Menachem ben Saruk, however, placed in in the same section as “And speak [ve-hatef] to the south” (Yechezkel 21:2); and as “Speak [tatifu] you not” (Mikha 2:6), so that totafot would be an expression denoting speaking and corresponds to a memorial, because whoever sees them bound between the eyes will remember the miracle and will speak about it. (Rashi, Shemot 13:16)
Compare with the words of the Ramban:
But grammarians relate it to: “And speak (ve-hatef) to the south” and “And my speech dropped (titof) upon them” (Iyov 29:22), which is a borrowed sense of “And the mountains shall drop (ve-hetifu) sweet wine” (Amos 9:13). That is to say, make of the exodus from Egypt a sign upon your hand and words between your eyes, that will drip like dew on those who hear it. (Ramban, ad loc.)
[3] Even though the wording implies that the reference is to all the mitzvot, the midrash is referring exclusively to mitzvot that envelop a person and his house, and with which he adorns himself before his Creator.
[4] See our earlier discussion regarding the scope of the mitzva of Torah study in light of this verse in relation to the gemara in Menachot 99b. See there what we cited in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai in the Yerushalmi Berakhot regarding the demand that he wished to present to God that He give man two mouths, so that God's law could be in his mouth at all times, and he would never have to interrupt his studies.  
[5] See, however, Responsa Chatam Sofer (Orach Chayim 39), who maintains that this law applies to all sanctified objects, and not just tefillin. He derives this from the words of the Ran in Rosh Hashana regarding a shofar from an unclean animal, for he writes that since its work is to awaken remembrance, it is as if used within. He learns from this that the Ran was in doubt about a shofar only because it is has a connection to sanctity, but if the shofar were merely an object used in the performance of a mitzva, it was obvious to him that it would not have to be made from something that is permitted in your mouth. In any event, the very fact that this law is written in the Torah with respect to tefillin requires explanation.